by Gary Carter
There’s always a first time. Do you remember yours? The first time you cooked a turkey on your own, away from home, for the family?
From Julia Child to Emeril Lagasse, famous chefs have all confessed to their first forays into the holiday cooking realm, most to hilarious and disastrous outcomes.
And, for me, hearing those stories as I sat glued to television food programs over the years, only added to my dread and fear of cooking a Thanksgiving feast for the first time away from home.
I researched. I shopped. I planned. Still, the result was lackluster and full of pitfalls.
I had no idea how long it takes to thaw a big frozen turkey. In fact, it still seems like a crapshoot, as I’ve had a frozen turkey in the fridge for a week and it was still partially frozen.
But that first time, it only thawed in the fridge overnight, so it was still rock hard. I unwrapped the bird, covered it in butter and salt and pepper, and put it in the oven on 350 degrees.
What seemed like a day later, it looked done to me. Well, it wasn’t burnt.
My folks arrived first that day for Thanksgiving dinner, and my mom was inspecting the bird. She noticed a white thing on the side and pointed it out. It was a pop-up thermometer that just about melted into the breast. I had never seen one of those before. Oops.
Then, as my father was giving the bird the once over for carving, he looked into the turkey’s cavity and slowly pulled out a steaming bag. It was the giblets and such. “What is that?” I said. He tried to cover for me, but the game was up. All had noticed that I cooked the bird with the bag of guts and neck and stuff still inside.
To my family’s credit, they ate on this sad turkey. Eh, I’ve had worse. But, I believe my confidence was taken down a notch or two; as it was later in the meal when my “homemade” pumpkin pie was discarded wholesale by the family.
I had purchased a pumpkin, carved it, and used the meat inside for the pie. Think chicken pot pie with pumpkin. Seemed like a simple idea at the time … pumpkin, karo syrup, and a crust. A family member whispered to me the virtues of pie filling.
I like to think that more than two decades later, I’ve got the hang of Thanksgiving dinner and can be in a position to give advice and warning to those embarking on their first time. But you know what happens when you assume? I’ll leave it at that.
Keep it simple
I’m hearing that I need to rub under the turkey’s skin a compound butter made with chervil and raspberry-mango salsa and I need to tie the legs with organic hemp and stuff with a parsnip puree and panko bread crumbs.
Ah, that makes my head hurt. Here’s what I think:
Thaw the bird. Take the gunk out of the cavity and putan onion, an apple, and an orange in there. Turn the whole thing over, breast side down and put a can of chicken broth in the bottom of the roasting pan. Cook it low and slow, maybe even overnight on 200 degrees. About 40 minutes before the end, turn the bird back over, baste with butter and crisp the skin under the broiler to give the bird a golden hue.
Cooking the turkey breast-side down will almost always leave you with a moist turkey, and in my experiences, no matter how you cut it or season it, if the bird is dry, people aren’t satisfied.
The stuffing in the bird is usually the tastiest, but you have to know it comes at the expense of the bird’s juices. Make your stuffing in another pan, and you can’t go wrong with cornbread dressing anyway.
I just cook up three packages of cornbread in a big alumninum pan, and when the cornbread is done, pour on three cans of chicken broth, add boiled egg whites, some milk, chives, garlic salt, black pepper, and a few assorted other spices and put the soupy dressing mix into that warm oven for an hour or so. Simple, yes … but very good.
You take that bird out of the pan when it’s done and let it rest, boil the leftover juices and some corn starch or flour/water mixture to thicken it and season it how you like it … gravy.
This isn’t rocket science, and it’s not going to impress a food snob seeking out the “root vegetable puree” or balsamic-turkey consommé. It’s good, simple, and easy. And it’s a crowd pleaser. If this is your first Thanksgiving feast, don’t fret. Take it from someone who’s taken the Thanksgiving walk of shame … just keep it simple.